- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

BUFFALO, N.Y. — While his veteran teammates slumped in folding chairs and tried to grasp the fate of their careers finishing in a gray, bleak western New York town far from frenzy of the Final Four, Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez leaned forward and seethed Saturday afternoon.

It was an ending for him, too, but not the ending it was for D.J. Strawberry, Mike Jones and four other seniors. Nor was the 62-59 loss to Butler in the second round of the NCAA tournament the final word for Maryland basketball.

Rather, it could be a beginning, the root of another run for a program that loses much heading into next season but also returns two experienced guards (Vasquez and Eric Hayes) and a big man (James Gist) who blossomed as a junior.

“We have to make this program the way it used to be,” Vasquez said. “People are just going to say, ‘Oh, they did OK, they made it to the tournament and tied for third place in the conference.’ It is not enough. We have to go farther than that.”

The disappointment of the conclusion of a 25-9 season — the program’s most victories and best winning percentage since the 2001-02 national championship season — will not fade soon. It was a game the Terps could have won and would have won with even slightly better free throw shooting and perimeter defense.

Yet Maryland still reached the NCAA tournament and earned a No. 4 seed, still became the first team in ACC history to open league play with a 1-4, 2-5 or 3-6 record — let alone all of them — and finish with a winning record, still electrified a program mired in stodgy mediocrity while making NIT appearances in 2005 and 2006.

“We did a lot of positive things, but we ended up short of what our ultimate goal was,” senior center Will Bowers said. “But we did reach a lot of positive goals, and it’s better than the last two years.”

The Terps’ two immediate predecessors probably could not have bolted to an 8-0 start, fueling hopes of an extended run. And they probably could not have overcome an ugly January to rattle off a seven-game winning streak to finish the regular season.

Coach Gary Williams bristles whenever he is asked about the Terps enduring a down spell or the need to bring the team back, often unleashing a litany of statistics long-since memorized. But the reality is the group led by Strawberry reversed a trend of declining or stagnant victory totals and postseason results.

“I think this team did get us back to where we wanted to be, which is the NCAA tournament,” Williams said. “Now, of course, we want to go far. It’s close when you look around and see who lost the first [NCAA] game and see who didn’t get into the tournament. That’s going to be there every year from now on.”

Vasquez and Hayes will be back to form a portion of the backcourt, while Gist and Bambale Osby will anchor the frontcourt. Holdovers Landon Milbourne and Dave Neal could assume larger roles, and redshirt Jerome Burney and four (or more, depending on whether the Terps sign anyone this spring) true freshmen will be in the mix.

The recent precedent of postseason success will be another new element in Maryland’s formula next season.

Even with only three scholarship juniors and seniors and none in the backcourt, several players in significant roles will truly appreciate what must be done to reach the NCAA tournament.

“I think it was a successful season,” Gist said. “We lost in the second round, but we made the NCAA tournament. It’s a goal for me next year. I want to do that again, and I’m going to push the guys to do that.”

It isn’t always easy to let go of a season. Williams said a piece of the loss probably will linger with him until practice opens in October, but he hopes it isn’t quite the same for his players. The seniors, who exchanged hugs with teammates and staff members as Williams finished his final interview session of the season, likely will remember the end for some time.

So will Vasquez. But even as he fumed over the Terps’ premature demise, Vasquez spoke of his second season at Maryland in the present tense before leaving the locker room.

“We’re not going to take any chances,” Vasquez said. “We’re going to go get them this year.”

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